Architects survey reveals growing desire to downsize and green up

(By Roger K. Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 25, 2010

According to a survey of architects who design custom homes, the most popular special-function rooms clients desire in a house -- apart from bedrooms, baths, kitchens and living-dining rooms -- are home offices.

Second in popularity are outdoor living spaces, followed by multipurpose "mud" rooms. Plenty of closets and storage remain high on client wish lists.

The survey, conducted recently by the American Institute of Architects, also showed that home theaters, extra rooms for live-ins and in-laws, hobby/game rooms, exercise rooms, interior greenhouses, and separate children's and guest wings are diminishing in popularity. Long favored by clients with ample financial resources, these special-purpose spaces have become less popular not because they are less useful, but because custom homes, like new production homes, are shrinking in size, mostly for economic reasons.

Since 2007, declining housing values , home sales and household assets have affected almost everyone, including families with the means to build a custom-designed home. Clients who a few years ago might have considered constructing a multimillion-dollar 8,000-square-foot home are today substantially scaling back their functional program and budget. Even they worry about affordability.

Home downsizing also reflects a growing sustainability commitment by clients who genuinely seek to be greener and reduce their new home's carbon footprint by saving energy -- and money. The AIA survey found that clients increasingly are asking architects to design volumetrically compact, spatially informal houses constructed with low-maintenance, recycled or renewable materials. Although they want less roof and wall surface area, clients nevertheless demand well-insulated attics and exterior walls with double and triple-glazed windows. Clients are also interested in domestic energy conservation and management systems, including use of geothermal heat pump technology, programmable thermostats, tankless water heaters and water-reclamation equipment.

Solar collectors for heating and photovoltaic panels for generating electricity remain popular, especially in sunnier regions. But interest in automated lighting controls has remained static, according to the survey.

Not surprisingly, after weather-related electrical blackouts sometimes lasting days, homeowners are now contemplating backup electric power-generating equipment. This not-so-green tactic requires installing a generator with a fossil fuel-burning engine and exhaust, plus a fuel storage tank.

Diminishing the size of one's house undoubtedly saves money, but using sometimes costly, state-of-the-art materials and technology can offset basic construction savings. Yet this economic analysis takes into account only initial capital costs. A life-cycle economic analysis, based on many years of energy cost savings and possible savings attributable to tax credits and deductions, can yield substantial, long-term financial benefits.

Reduced maintenance associated with owning a smaller, more sustainably built home produces additional life-cycle cost savings. The smaller and more compact a house, the less it costs over the years to keep it clean, to re-roof it, to repaint its walls and woodwork, to redo or refinish its floors, to recaulk its windows and to repoint its brick or stonework.

Today's clients are often less motivated than previous generations to spend time and money taking care of a huge house surrounded by huge yards. Instead of groundskeeping, they prefer keeping gardens. Indeed, building a house on a relatively small lot can make great sense if the lot is on a nice street in a nice neighborhood, is appropriately situated relative to neighboring lots and homes, and has access to landscape amenities.

Aspiring to be green might influence a client's lot choice before the client has hired an architect. Architects frequently design houses for clients who intentionally have bought property in more densely configured, walkable neighborhoods where houses and lots are small in size and scale, and where shopping, schools, recreational facilities and perhaps even transit are close by. In such locations, a multi-car garage might not be necessary, contributing further to home downsizing, energy conservation and cost savings.

The AIA survey did not address aesthetic trends. But what might the nearly 300 architects surveyed have said about aesthetic trends, about traditional versus modern stylistic preferences? They probably would have responded that there is no one aesthetic trend -- that client tastes are as diverse as their own.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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